Nothing to sneeze at
Phryne smiled at Jack, glancing at his strong arms on either side of her head. "This isn't quite how I pictured us sharing a hotel room," she murmured.
Jack rolled his eyes, then motioned his head to Bert, who was standing at the far corner of the room. Bert nodded and reached out to grab the collar of Cec's duster jacket. As he yanked Cec toward the door, the cabbie kept his hands planted firmly over the ears of a red-faced Constable Collins. In turn, Hugh refused to relinquish his protective hold, covering a blushing Dot's ears in kind.
As Bert pulled his friend toward the door, Cec backed up in small steps, with Hugh and Dot all attached – all looking a bit like a lop-sided locomotive. Bert yanked open the door, which creaked in protest with its aging hinges. Bert's eyes flew to Phryne.
She threw herself against the wall and screamed, "Yes, yes, yes!" Jack sighed, but gave the wall another couple of firm shoves with his hands. Cec bit his lip to stop from laughing as the group inched out the door.
There had been no way to stop Bert and Cec from charging toward the room of the punter who offed their favorite racehorse to help fix a bet. Jack and Collins were along for the unfortunate jockey who died while riding Fair Filly Fine. As for Phryne, she had been at the races that day in a friend's box, and offered her services to the owner of the horse, and his young and handsome son.
It was poor Dot who managed to track down Punter Charlie to the neighborhood flophouse where he resided. She waited with Hugh for the inspector and Miss Fisher to arrive. But Bert and Cec caught wind of Charlie's whereabouts, and raced to take their losings out of Charlie's hide.
It was only by the grace of his long stride that Jack was able to grab hold of the cabbies and shove them into the empty, adjoining room before they crashed down Charlie's door.
"You have no idea how many men are in that room," Jack hissed at Bert, who tossed the inspector's grip from his arm.
"Shhhhh," Phryne demanded entering the shabby room. She made her way quietly to the rather filthy wall that bumped up against Charlie's hideout and leaned an ear toward it.
"Can you hear them then, Miss?" Dot whispered.
Phryne nodded. "Which means they can probably hear us as well," she said in a hushed tone. Jack made his way silently to the wall, and leaned in near Phryne.
Collins made to follow, but a rat scattered across the floor. Dot's hand flew to her mouth, but she let forth a muffled squeal and jumped toward Hugh, sending both of them flying into the moldering and sagging bed. A cloud of dust flew up from a tattered blanket and the tarnished brass headboard slammed against the wall.
"Hey oh!" Charlie yelled through the wall. "Keep your tart quiet over there!"
"Yea, you tell 'em, Charlie!" shouted another man, whose voice wore heavy with the tinge of alcohol.
Jack held up two fingers – two men at least. Phyne nodded and turned to Hugh. She saw the very moment the young constable realized he was sitting on a bed with his sweetheart. Horrified, Hugh shot up off the bed like a canon, sending Dottie and a dusty blanket right into Cec. The headboard smacked against the wall again in protest.
"Oy! Keep it down," Charlie called. "Or me and Bud are coming over there to quiet you!"
Bert curled his fists, ready for a fight. Jack turned and lifted his hand, intending to wave Hugh outside. Instead, Phryne watched him wave both hands frantically at Cec, who was holding back an oncoming sneeze charged with the blanket's dust. Cec fought valiantly, but an explosive sneeze rocked the room.
"What wazz that?" Charlie's drunk friend slurred.
Before anyone could respond, Phryne grabbed Inspector Robinson by the lapels of his blue, wool suit and threw her back against the crumbling purple, floral-print wallpaper.
"Oh yes! Right here, darling!" she moaned loudly at the wide-eyed Jack. She pointed behind her to the wall. "Right here, against the wall."
Jack nodded. "Umm…anything for you…doll," he yelled.
Doll? She mouthed. Jack shrugged helplessly. With an exasperated smirk, Phryne threw her back against the wall one, two, three times, yelling "Oh yes, yes, yes…Archie!" she rubbed her back, certain she was bruised from her last, rather enthusiastic, yes.
Jack sighed. He reached up and gave the wall several good thumps with the palms of his hands. "That's it, Fern," he said the name almost sternly. He motioned his head for Hugh to make his way to the door. Turning, he caught sight of Collins and Dot both slack-jawed and staring. Meeting the inspector's gaze, Hugh's hands flew to Dottie's ears, hoping to drown out some of the impassioned noise.
"Ohhh, just a bit higher," yelled Phyrne, waving to Cec. The cabie turned, saw the look of panic on Hugh's face, and threw his hands over the constable's ears. He smiled at Phryne, who sighed.
Phyrne looked slyly at Jack. "This isn't quite how I pictured us sharing a hotel room," she murmured. He rolled his eyes and placed a few more slams against the wall. Timing a few – more delicate – slams against the wall herself, Phryne motioned to Bert to move toward the door. Bert pointed to the hallway in question.
"Yes, yes, YES," she said, waving her hand at Bert. He nodded, grabbed Cec's collar and edged the trio out the door. A second later, Jack and Phryne heard the door to Charlie's room fly open, accompanied by a shout from Hugh of "Police! Don't move!"
Jack remained leaning over Phryne for a moment more. "Never took Fern for a fallen woman," he said, a small smile on his lips.
Phryne raised an eyebrow. "Seems to me Archie can take Fern anywhere he likes." She ducked under his arm and walked into the hallway.
"Lucky Archie," mumbled Jack, and followed.